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Since January 2000, most new television sets have come with a V-Chip that enables parents to block programs with “objectionable” content-based on a system of letter ratings-yet less than 17 percent of all parents who own equipped televisions are currently using the chip. Why? Some argue that the V-Chip has been underpublicized or that parents don’t understand the technology. Here’s another partial explanation: while many parents are concerned that popular culture doesn’t reflect their values, they also question whether any outside agency (like the TV industry organization that rates programs’ content) can make media decisions for them.

Historically, media reformers have advanced two different kinds of rationales for any sort of ratings: one educational (providing parents reliable information for policing their children’s media consumption), the other regulatory (controlling children’s access to “unwholesome” material). But in the wake of the Columbine shootings, the weight has shifted to the regulatory side of the equation, with the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and others investigating the “moral content” of popular culture, and proposals arising, for example, to make it a criminal offense to sell a violent video game to a minor. Calls for stricter enforcement don’t empower parents; they reflect a suspicion that parents won’t do what’s best for their kids. Moreover, this system of enforcement relies on a definable “point of sale”-the ID check at an R-rated movie or an electronics store sales counter-while we are approaching an age when much content may be downloaded off the Web.

Maybe we are asking ratings to do too much. Ratings are value judgments, not objective scientific standards; but whose values do they reflect? Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code, which regulated movie content for three decades, was authored in the context of a threatened boycott of American cinema by the Legion of Decency and other conservative Christian groups. Although its standards still influence our current ratings system, the code never reflected a national consensus-and in any case, a unified set of value judgments makes increasingly less sense within an ever more multicultural society. The Lion King may demean minorities, for example, but be rated as appropriate for all ages; Fundamentalist parents may object to the witchcraft in Harry Potter books. One parent objects to a single swear word; another figures kids hear that on the playground anyway. Other parents worry about animal abuse, homophobia and sexism, alcohol consumption, anti-intellectualism or blasphemy. No ratings system could accurately reflect all the different (and often contradictory) criteria. Ratings enforcement requires weighing some of these concerns over others.

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